February is relentlessly dark in this northern town. Grey skies intermittently spit snow. Arctic cold fronts spew horribly strong winds at bitterly numbing temperatures. In this cold city you need to know where the warm places are. This taproom was one of the warmest and most welcoming he knew.
In the middle of the block, on a thoroughfare not yet totally gentrified, stands the Bedford Arms Ballroom. “Ballroom” is a misnomer, the place was a tavern of the highest order plain and simple. Three stories tall the first two floors of this public house are spacious. Often crowded with bodies you never notice the cold once inside.
Interlaced bricks precisely aligned face forward. The façade is elegant. Traditional Ontario yellow bricks line up row upon row. Even viewed from across the busy thoroughfare which abuts the Bedford, you can clearly see the tap was constructed in the mid-1800s. An elegant dowager the Bedford is a clear presence on a street that had grown to become one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
Dark grey smoked windows face the street bearing the stylized name, “Bedford Arms.” Emblazoned on the glass and writ large each letter is crafted with all the curlicues and extra strokes needed to show a real connection to the gilded age. Smell of beer poured, stored and soaked from spills into the oak floors mingle with the scents of stews and curries. The place carries itself with a frayed elegance and joie de vivre.
The Bedford stays busy. 14 taps of microbrews bring in the crowds. 10 pool tables up a half flight of stairs behind the bar, in a space edged with an ornate wood railing also help. But maybe it is the plentiful co-eds from the university across the avenue who act as honey for the prowling men beasts that keep the place so lively. Maybe all of the above coupled with the pub’s good and fairly priced food is why the public rooms are most always packed. Two dollars and some change still buys a cup of decent meaty chili here.
Wearing their workday suits ties loosed the duo had talked out all their business and most of their small talk at the bar. Feet on the rail among the bustle and boisterousness of a Thursday night student bar night the conversation had gone one for better than an hour. Around them appreciated by them as eye candy groups of twenty-somethings from the university hung in the front rooms. This is nothing if not a meat market. In fashions de jour with au courant styled coifs the youth quipped and parried. These sexually charged bar denizens ran their well-polished lines and stratagems on members of the opposite sex (mostly). Each and every one of them was doing their best to not be alone in the sheets in a frigid student flat come morning light.
Watching the goings on, and occasionally affixing a label to one of the cons being played out by some studly young man on some buxom lass, the pair had talked through all their business. Settling up for their bar tab, they had consumed a couple flights of microbrews and some bruschetta, the two ordered some very old scotch neat and carried it back to a very small room.
Having been around so long the taproom had been tweaked many times over the years. In the back a warren of small rooms had been added to allow for small groups to conduct their private business in a quieter environment. They picked one of the smallest rooms probably because the chairs were soft and were almost certainly calling their names. A small gas fireplace was in the center of the room. The fire within was warm and welcoming.
Tonight’s evening was clearly near an end. They sat in those overstuffed chairs and enjoyed their drinks. Last call was imminent but probably didn’t matter. Contrary to a student’s routine of drinking the good booze first and then shifting to the cheap shit (when taste didn’t really matter but the buzz did), these two old friends were drinking the superior stuff at the end. Good scotch was their dessert.
The room in which they found themselves had flocked dark wallpaper, it was a small cozy space. You could barely hear the clack of pool balls from the adjoining suite. Sipping Lagavulin and savoring the smoky peat taste of the Islay they both seemed to be looking away from the current moment into a point miles beyond. He had always loved these moments spent at the end of a day with a dear friend. It was one of the true joys of growing older.
All night despite the jokes and jibes he had sensed an undercurrent of discomfort. The older man had tried to fathom out what was the concern hidden in the background. Years before when he had first started out in the trade his boss had offered a maxim about what caused things to get troubled, to go sideways as it were. “Booze, babes or bets, these cause all our troubles.” When you adapted his old Cro-Magnon’s master’s sexist term “babes” into a gender neutral noun the adage seemed to hold true even in this much changed world. He senses one of these might be in play. Troubling him was the absence of clues from which to make a guess as to which one exactly. In the public room the conversation was strictly tied to the business at hand. Maybe now that they were out of the public eye, something would shake loose.
When the liquor was seeping into their systems the darkened room’s flickering fireplace light had the effect he had hoped for. His younger friend had finally let go. The younger man had held his turmoil tight within a gripped hand. How did the phrase float out? “Have you ever been tempted?” or was it “You have been married for a long time was there ever a time you felt that it wasn’t enough.” Both meant the same thing. Right now the person sitting in the other chair was on a boundary line. He was trying to decide if putting a pinky, a mere pinky, on the “other” side of the border was going to be a problem. Was it going to be the marital equivalent of the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand or was it somehow permissible by the unwritten rules of social convention? To the entire outside world the younger man and his wife had a most stable loving relationship.
Hearing his younger friend’s query he understood what was in play quite clearly. His friend was conducting a risk assessment. He knew that for some that stroll outside the garden wall was a one way walk into a completely different world. Consequences could follow that would be really, really quite serious. Some poor souls merely opened the gate and the whole shebang just came tumbling down. On the other hand some people just floated over the fence and back keeping their mouths shut and never being discovered.
The older man had been to that border himself but he didn’t talk about it much. He knew both the costs and the reasons for being there at the edge. Sometimes salt loses its flavor. Sometimes the light dims in the world two people occupy. Sometimes the joint ride that is marriage becomes so repetitive that your soul seems to be weighed down. Some have described the emotional state they moved you to the edge as drowning.
He knew well other things can turn a head. Sometimes it is just that sparks fly when you move into the orbit of a firebrand. Sometimes it is just fucking bug lust when both of you know it is wrong. Hell maybe that other person will know a new trick that when executed will cross your eyes and cause the beads of perspiration to roll. A well placed tongue has been known to make that edge of accepted life downright porous.
To craft a response to his friend wasn’t easy. No two cases are alike. Each dalliance carries the promise of joy but all carry with them the seeds of potential destruction.
He looked at the face in the chair beside him, “You know these lives we live are built on sand nothing more and nothing less. Our worlds are quite fragile things really. Our day to day life is gossamer illusion. From the day they teach us to keep score we build worlds that we share with others stacking expected experiences on each other brick upon brick. We move forward checking the “to dos” off a master list, job, marriage, car, kids, vacation home and so on.”
“Still those who share our path be it spouse or a child they are never really part of us. While not us they are woven into our lives like part of a fine silk brocade. But pierce that fine illusion with a harsh action or pull on a silk thread with some jagged reality and it all falls apart. What remains is not very pretty. In that we are dealing with human beings there isn’t physical wreckage on the ground, instead there is pain, deep dark pain.”
He continued, “Somewhere long ago you realized that you had a soul. You became aware that you wanted to craft something out of the time you have between the forceps and the stone. Maybe the path was easy for you at first, or so it seemed. But one day you opened your eyes and you realized that some part of your soul had been caged. And suddenly you also realized that the time flying by was no longer your friend. Right then you knew something had to change and mentally you began to walk to the edge of your known world. Suddenly there is danger. Suddenly there is passion. Suddenly everything is hard to understand or contain. Scary isn’t it?”
Stopping he sipped the old ancient scotch whiskey. He needed to decide where to take this next. What words would be the right words in this situation? His experience wouldn’t be everyone’s experience. His choices would not be the right choices for two out of three people. Looking into the fire through the amber whisky in his glass he knew why this place would always be part of his memories. It gave you space to think.
Resting the whisky on the chairs arm he began to speak again. “I have reached that point in my life where stoicism makes sense to me. Trust me I still would love to have the taste of new pussy on my tongue. Hell I am sure there is someone out there that could fuck these old bones in a way that would send shivers to places I have forgotten I have. Also I have heard there is no longer hair down there. But to what end? Life is very short all in all and the choices we make don’t make a bit of difference in the grand cosmic scheme of things. I am almost certain that humanity will die out and we will leave this third rock from the sun quite barren, perhaps sooner than later.”
“What I am saying is that all we have is our actions to measure our worth against. It might not mean much in the end but it is something. Who we have treated ill means something to our souls in the end. What goals we have chased also means something in the end. I guess what I am saying is that you have to look inside and see who you. You then got to consider the cost of your next step to your soul.”’
His friend looked at him in a questioning manner. The question even in this dark light was clear what have you done in this situation? Again his answer had to be carefully crafted and offered.
A little more whiskey would be needed before he spoke. Had it been any other friend he might have lied. But they had seen too much together. They had worked hard together. They had cried together. They had opened their souls to each other. This one required truth but a careful truth.
“Did you ever listen to Dylan while you were at university?” He posed the question without making eye contact. “Bobby Dylan was a whole bunch of things to a whole bunch of people but at the very minimum he was an amazing poet. So many of his words are like little totally on-point haiku. If you listen carefully you can work ‘em around in your mind. One lyric that always has stayed with me was from his song Dirge. The words go, ‘I went out on Lower Broadway and I felt that place within, that hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin.’ Having an affair is something that. An affair can leave ashes and carnage all over the place. The aftermath can be a hollow place of weeping when the sin of the angle is discovered”
Stroking his near empty glass he continued, “But oh there are times when our bodies and minds ache for something. Even if everything in our lives seems fine things just happen. From out of nowhere unexpected and unanticipated sparks arise. Suddenly there comes electricity, compulsion, desire, passion and those most basic urges. In fever heat these drive us to moments where despite our logical brain screaming “no, no, no,” we cross the line. Our better angels are almost inexorably drawn to “play with sin”. It can come on like a gale from out of nowhere washing over us causing turmoil and danger only to be gone a few moments later. On the other hand it can be a sustained blow that we cannot resist or avoid.”
The gas fireplace’s glow gave him focus. The warmth was comforting. He mused a bit and then realized that his glass was empty. He spied a side table and he walked over to it and put the glass down. Returning to his chair he rested on the arm and looked at his friend. His friend’s head was pointed down gazing into the fire. The light in the room flickered golden.
Quietly he spoke, “No matter what you do here you are not the first to travel this path. But please know there are consequences. If you are discovered you marriage, your life, your finances and the lives of you children and spouse will be about as upset as any apple cart can be. You if found out will never be able to put the world you live in now back together.”
He gazed at his friend. Well he actually gazed at his friend’s hairline because that head had remained fixed forward looking far and away into the light. It had barely moved the entire time he was speaking. He straightened up a bit and let a little air escape over his lips. He in the softest of tones proceeded, “But even if you are not discovered and you do everything right in carrying on this assignation there are consequences. I mean even assuming there are no stray scents or hairs to give you away you will be changed. Even if there are no photos ever taken your personality will be amended. One can only hope you will never run into mutual friends of your spouse leaving the place of your tryst. But even if the affair is short lived and never discovered there will be a change in you, in your soul or heart.”
“Keith Richard has the lyric for this one, ‘faith has been broken; it is a dull aching pain’. His friend shifted in the chair but the speaker did not dare make eye contact because he did not want to chance that his friend might be able to see what was churning in his own soul right now. “You will be different when it is done. You may have longing and loss. The flame that you fanned may leave an empty space in your soul that will forever change your relationship with those around you. Melancholy is close but it is not the right word.”
He looked down and then said, “You may feel dirty afterward, like you have gotten away with something and it may nag at you for years. But then again, maybe not. For some people a clandestine coupling is a release, a satisfaction of a need or a culmination that acts a reaffirmation of who they are. If both parties know the rules this is possible. Hell maybe you will even find your true soul mate although I doubt that.”
Having looked over at his empty glass and feeling the glow of the scotch fading he contemplated one more drink and then decided against it. “My friend the path you are travelling is well worn ground. Think about what you get out of this carefully. Weigh the risks. The path you take is yours alone.” With that he grew quiet and his mind wandered to a place where the scent of Opium perfume mixed with the aroma one smells in passionate moments. In his mind’s eye the autumn light threw a warm glow on the naked full form of a beautiful woman not his wife. There in that image she was clutching a sheet so as to cover most of her form save her right breast. Catching his gaze she smiled at him. And just as quickly the image was gone.
His friend never returned to the subject. There were no follow up questions. Instead they talked a little bit more about banal things such as the likelihood of getting a cab at this hour and whether the snow might have stopped. But no real conversation followed his soliloquy. And with that last call having now passed the lights came up and they shuffled to the entranceway and departed.
On the ride home that night he would return to the image of the woman in the sheets more than once. And when the melancholy began to fill his heart he would look out the cab window and let the street scenes distract him.